Top Gear’s Top 9: big engines in small cars | Top Gear
BBC TopGear
BBC TopGear

Top Gear’s Top 9: big engines in small cars

It’s not like Aston invented the sizeable-engine-in-small-car formula with the V12 Vantage, is it?

Renault Clio V6
  1. Shelby Cobra 427

    Shelby Cobra 427

    If you’re going to talk about the time-honoured practice of big engines in small cars, you may as well start with the car that became an automotive legend for just that.

    By now, the story is famous: a British company by the name of AC Cars gets a letter from Carroll Shelby asking if they wouldn’t mind letting the seams out a bit on their Ace (and indeed ace) sports car, so he could wedge a V8 in there. The lads at AC agreed, and Shelby went to work to source some American firepower. Chevy declined, given they already had the Corvette, but Ford was very much ready to blow said Corvette into the weeds.

    It apparently took Shelby and his team less than eight hours to pair Ford’s new 4.7-litre Windsor engine with AC's delectable Ace, creating the gorgeous CSX2000 prototype. Which we want only slightly more than our next breath.

    But what you’re here for is the big enchilada, right? Well, the MkIII Cobra was generally beefier all around and had better suspension. Oh, and a 7.0-litre V8 from Ford, which saw use in buses, trucks and boats. We’re assuming there was enough torque to leave it in top gear up hills, then.

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  2. Randall 401-XR

    Randall 401-XR

    The AMC Gremlin was, to be completely fair, something of a joke to just about everyone but AMC and a few die-hards. But the Randall 401-XR was the kind of car that offered anyone amused by its bodywork an opportunity to laugh on the other side of their faces.

    You’d have to spend muscle-car money to buy one new, but then again there was a 6.6-litre V8 with at least 255bhp on offer. It’s unlikely any actually left the dealer with that amount of power, considering the options list eschewed the usual trim bits and electric options for hotter camshafts, performance headers and so on.

    There is a very, very good chance that the little Gremlin that could was the first hatchback to make 300bhp from the dealership. In the Seventies. The 401-XR isn’t a joke; it’s Rodney Dangerfield – “I tell ya, I don’t get no respect.”

  3. Lotus Exige 430

    Lotus Exige 430

    Do cars get smaller than a Lotus? Apart from French Voitures sans Permis and little tike pedal cars, the answer tends to be in the negative.

    So to then bolt a 3.5-litre supercharged V6 in the back shows a) the kind of thinking we can get behind and b) a serious contender in the big-car-small-engine stakes. Or it would be, if not for the...

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  4. Hennessey Venom

    Hennessey Venom

    Yup. You knew this was coming. Has more engine ever been shoehorned into less car, then offered to the public?

    Like the Cobra 427, the Venom (oh, we see what they did there) sports a 7.0-litre, all-American V8. But where they differ is that for Hennessey, that’s a starting point, not an end goal. Under the pressure of twin turbochargers, the Venom made well in excess of 1,200bhp – somehow kept under control by a stretched Lotus chassis, quite a bit of engineering and, presumably, a driver with no fight-or-flight response.

  5. Sunbeam TigerRenault Clio V6

    Sunbeam Tiger

    Oh, how cute! It’s a little old British roadster. One that looks broadly like almost every little old British roadster, because they’re absolutely indistinguishable unless you’re actually from the drizzly isles.

    Er, not quite. Sunbeam had a bit of form hiding rather large engines in its cars’ rather small dimension. Take, if you will, the Tiger as a bit of a case-in-point. As ever, the Americans supplied the V8 (in this case, a 4.3-litre from Ford) for as much as 245bhp – after a fair bit of British fettling, of course.

  6. Renault Clio V6

    Renault Clio V6

    You might expect to find the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA here, given it had an even bigger 3.2-litre Busso V6 wedged in the tiniest of Italian hatchbacks. But the Clio was even smaller than the 147. So much so, in fact, that there was no room to fit its 3.0-litre V6 in the engine bay. Or no inclination from the engineers. It was definitely one of those things.

    And so it came to pass that the little front-drive hatchback – which already had a wonderfully entertaining hot version in the Clio Sport – became a rear-wheel-drive, short-wheelbase, mid-engined lunatic. Needless to say, we’re fans.

  7. Holden Torana GTR

    Holden Torana GTR

    Fun fact: the Holden Torana started life as a Vauxhall Viva, before the Australians decided that the Viva’s 56bhp 1.2-litre engine was about as weedy as an untended paddock and plumped for a straight six.

    That straight six started off as a 2.3-litre, but grew to a 2.85-litre in the Torana GTR and a 160bhp, 3.0-litre in the Torana GTR XU-1.

    The XU-1 was basically a homologation special used in Australia’s touring car races – including Bathurst – and was quicker than the Monaro V8. Power to weight, people.

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  8. Ariel Atom V8

    Ariel Atom V8

    The Atom, as the name hints at a touch, is not a large car. It’s not even a small car. It is a slip of a thing, using its diminutive proportions and scant weight to deliver giant-killing performance.

    But what if you imbued something that already had giant-killing performance with giant-worthy power? Well, the obvious of course – intimations that your jacket might be better if it did up at the back, something about frightening small children and large adults, and possibly a reference to Luther Vandross.

    Yes, the engine’s really only 2.4 litres, but then it is a) a V8 and b) powering a car that weighs about half a tonne. We think it qualifies.

  9. Aston Martin Cygnet V8

    Aston Martin Cygnet V8

    It’s not just Vantages that make merry with their big brother’s engines. OK, generally it is, but one AM customer (who must be really interesting at parties) decided to commission one of Aston’s little Toyota-based tenders with one very proper Aston powerplant. The 4.7-litre V8 from the Vantage S, no less.

    Clearly, enough money was waved to make it a reality, and everyone involved decided to name it after a baby swan. Because of course you would. With names like Vulcan, Victor, Vanquish, Volante and Vantage, we feel that something alluring, powerful and starting with a V might have been a better choice. Ahem. Minds out of the gutter, now.

    Advertisement - Page continues below

More from Top Gear

See more on List

Promoted Content

Subscribe to the Top Gear Newsletter

Get all the latest news, reviews and exclusives, direct to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, you agree to receive news, promotions and offers by email from Top Gear and BBC Studios. Your information will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.